August 28, 2011 | Food for Thought
Update, August 30, 2011: the manager of the Pearl St. Farmers’ Market did make contact with me to tell me that all vendors are required to disclose where their produce comes from to a client, and that she will be talking to the farm about this incident. I’d like to think the young woman who told me incorrect information was just misinformed, and I’m hopeful that the farm will correct this situation with their team.What are your expectations when you shop at a local farmers’ market? Do you expect high quality? Do you expect the produce to be local? Do you expect a fair – not cheap, but fair – price? Do you expect freshness and good taste? These are my expectations and along with some other reasons (like supporting local communities and farmers) are why I shop at farmers’ markets during the harvest season. But recently, I was so let down by a vendor at the Old South Pearl Street market that I’ll never buy from them again.I like to buy fresh tomatoes at their height of flavor in the summer and can them or turn them into sauce. I always know that when the entire top shelf (which is large) in my kitchen freezer is full of jars, that I’ll largely be able to avoid buying canned tomatoes through the winter.Two weeks ago I saw lovely flats of tomatoes at the Miller Family Farms booth. They were behind the counter and I couldn’t read the box nor really see the tomatoes, but I asked – not once, but twice – if they were field vine ripened and if the were local Colorado tomatoes. I was told – not once, but twice – that indeed they were. My husband carried them to the car and when I got them inside to can, I discovered the fine print on the box that said “greenhouse grown in Mexico”. I was hoping the vendor was just reusing a box, but when I turned over the tomatoes, sure enough, there were Mexico produce stickers on them.I should have known better, and I’m a little embarrassed that I didn’t. First of all, the flat was only $10. The flat I purchased today of goregous heirloom tomatoes from the Ela Family Farm stand cost $30. Secondly, the color isn’t right. Vine ripened tomatoes should be vibrant, not the pale red color these were. Compare the jars of Mexican tomatoes to the heirlooms above and you’ll see what I mean. Thirdly, the tomatoes were too uniform – all the same size, weight, color, firmness. Tomatoes don’t ripen that way naturally, unless you’re managing a large, commercial, certainly not organic, growing operation. In the Ela box the tomatoes ranged from still firm and needing another day in the kitchen window to dripping with juice and needing to be eaten or frozen immediately.
I felt like I had been duped, which is actually a polite thing to say since I’m pretty sure I was lied to outright. I don’t care what a vendor chooses to sell – if a farm wants to resell Mexican produce, hey, it’s a (mostly) free world. But shouldn’t that be made clear to the buyer? I understand the “buyer beware” mentality, but this seems like intentionally tricking. And shouldn’t the person who manages the market be aware of this kind of marketing and do something about it? Despite an email to her explaining what happened, I haven’t heard a word.So here’s my advice to al of you who are purchasing from your local farmers’ markets:
1. Get to know individual farmers personally – chat with them, learn what their philosophy is, ask what they grow, take time to learn about their farm.
2. Ask what you are buying – and then ask again to be sure.
3. Avoid anything that is too uniform in size, shape, and color – that’s just not how crops grow.
4. Expect to pay a fair price – and that means a price that is probably higher than you think because it costs money to grow quality (organic) food well, and certainly higher than the industrial produce shipped in from other places (in the US and elsewhere) that you find in the grocery store.
5. Get it while the gettin’ is good! Steve Ela told me today they are “swimming in tomatoes” this week. I took that as my signal to buy a flat and can them.
6. Expect surprising kindness from the farmers you get to know. Because I was buying a flat, the Ela folks threw in a few more lovely large tomatoes for me. They want you to be satisfied, not feel cheated – despite how difficult it is for most of them to make a living doing what they do.
I feel confident I’ll always be treated well by Ela Family Farms – as for any others who clearly don’t share the same ethics, shame on you.